OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma remains one of just a few states in which the Legislature is specifically exempted from laws regarding open records and open meetings — a dubious distinction lawmakers should change, an open government advocate told a Senate panel on Tuesday.
Joey Senat, a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, told members of the Senate Rules Committee that Oklahoma is one of just three states in which the Legislature has a specific exemption to the Open Records Act that applies to other government entities, and one of eight states that have an exemption from the Open Meetings Act.
“These are basic principles that are applied to other areas of government,” Senat said. “Operating in the open is not always the most convenient or the easiest way to conduct business, but in a Democratic society, it is the best way.”
The meeting on increasing legislative transparency was requested by state Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, who introduced a bill last year to modify the Legislature’s exemption. The bill never was granted a hearing. Holt said some of the resistance came from lawmakers concerned about public access to their schedules or meeting restrictions that might limit the flexibility of lawmakers to make quick changes to legislation, but he believes those changes can be overcome.
“I think some of the resistance is certainly legitimate and I respect it, but let’s work through that,” Holt said. “Nobody in this building should feel like they own the status quo. It’s nobody’s fault. This is a system and a culture that we inherited, and I think my colleagues ought to feel inspired to change it and continue to increase transparency in the legislative process.”
A House bill last year by Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, created a separate Oklahoma Legislative Open Records and Meetings Act that would have made virtually all records of the Legislature open to inspection, except for communications between a legislator and a constituent who is not a lobbyist. It also wouldn’t have applied to certain personnel records and other documents already exempt under the law.
The bill passed a House committee but got bogged down on the floor when lawmakers tried to add more than two dozen amendments to the bill.
“We had some passionate opposition,” Murphey said.
Murphey said he plans to introduce a similar measure again in the upcoming session, and he said he’s optimistic the concept will be embraced by incoming House Speaker T.W. Shannon.
Although it’s uncertain how the bill will be received in the Senate, chamber leaders have unveiled plans for technological improvements that will allow the public more access to its operations.
Senate Chief of Staff Randy Dowell said video cameras have been installed in all Senate committee rooms so that committee hearings can be broadcast live online, while upgrades in the Senate chamber will allow audio from floor proceedings to be archived and accessed later.
Dowell said a new $480,000 video board also will be installed in the Senate for the upcoming session that will include a full short title for each bill and a queue of upcoming bills that will allow members to switch from paper bills to electronic versions.
“That will hopefully allow us to transition to paperless over the next few years,” Dowell said.